Confessions from a Pastor's desk
In reflecting on many years in full- time ministry, two things are clear: I have messed up a lot and I have been burned badly. I have been in the black hole of burnout and depression.
The struggles have not just been with ministry – but rather in trying to understand who I am – and coming to terms with that. I used to come away from Pastors’ conferences and fraternals thinking I am not like my pastoral brothers. It was a great concern and I started questioning whether I should even be in pastoral ministry.
In my journey of self-knowledge within ministry (as part of a Student Campus Ministry in my early days, Seminary lecturer, Church planting and fulltime pastoral ministry in established churches), there are five imperatives I would like to highlight and shed some light on.
[This was originally prepared for an address at a Pastor’s get together]
#1 Beware of ‘busyness idolatry’/ ‘busyness righteousness’
One of the first things you pick up on when a group of Pastors and Church Planters get together, is how busy they are; conversations around hectic schedules and crazy busyness buzz around a room amid the required theological and doctrinal dialogues. Generally, in the Business realm or Marketplace, this is par for the course – movers and shakers are by definition busy people.
Church Planters and Pastors are also famous for being busy; always so much to do - important stuff – it is ‘ministry’ and ‘kingdom work’ after all.
It has become a subculture.
This sub-culture says that if you are not madly, crazy busy, you are not doing ministry properly. It comes with its own pastoral peer pressure.
This began to intimidate me. I was not hectically busy all the time. I had windows of free time. Was there something wrong with me?
I wasn’t always rushing off to the next big thing or meeting or conference or talk or camp or ministry trip or pulpit swop. I began to realise how this busyness subtly becomes a pride issue. It becomes an identity issue and it soon becomes a righteousness issue. (Always the slippery slope).
Busyness covers a multitude of shortcomings.
Bragging or whining about how busy one is should never impress.
It is dangerous to buy into this subtle lie – dangerous for you, your family and your church.
‘There is enough time for what God has called me to do,’ is what I preach to myself often. God is not a cruel tyrant. He knows I am not Superman. He knows I am dust. For me, those windows of free time are more than fine; they are necessary.
As a Pastor or Church Planter, is it vital and essential to say ‘no’ sometimes and to decline invitations to speak at conferences or camps, or take on extra ministries. Your reasons for saying ‘no’ are not due to laziness or a comfort zone mentality, but because you know what your primary calling and responsibility are and you never want to compromise your faithfulness in that. It is not possible to do more and more without compromising something; without some area of your life or ministry suffering. It is fine to say ’no.’
God, our Father invites us to this in Psalm 46:10: ‘Be still, and know that I am God’
Jesus, our Chief Shepherd modelled this: ‘The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.’ [Mark 6:30-32]
#2 Begin your discipleship at home:
As Pastors and Church Planters, the words of Jesus’ Great Commission are always at the forefront. We are seriously committed to meeting new people, getting to know them, sharing the Gospel with them, seeing them converted, baptised and taught.
We are big on discipleship. It is probably part of your Church’s mission statement.
Discipleship, however, must always start at home. It starts with your spouse and your children. (And if you are crazy busy with ‘ministry,’ this will be the first casualty).
If Christianity doesn’t work at home – don’t export it.
Being early morning people, formal family discipleship in the Koning household took place before school, sitting in bed and reading the Bible and ‘Leading little Ones to God’ (when our boys were youngsters), and praying and chatting through stuff. As a couple, we have prioritised praying for our children daily.
Informal family discipleship took various forms. Being a sporty family, lots of time was spent playing tennis, squash, cricket, running and mountain biking. It was not part of an agenda – it was just fun. As a family, camping adventures were always a favourite. Into their adult years, our boys cherish the memories of campfire made-up stories. We have unique and peculiar family traditions. We have unique and peculiar family traditions. While our sons were at school, we were avid supporters of their sporting events. We also enjoy listening to music together as well as dissecting and evaluating TV programmes. I cherish these informal discipling opportunities. It is Deuteronomy 6:6 fleshed out and contextualised.
I am thankful that I have spent more time with my wife and children
than with any co-worker, colleague, elder or friend in church.
It wasn’t an intentional thing, it was a pleasant and rewarding thing.
But let me be realistic as to my shortcomings as a Pastor husband/dad:
I probably fared better on the informal side of discipling. (By Paul Tripp’s standards, our formal training was below par. Paul Tripp gave me a guilt trip).
I regret the times our children were too aware of problems in the Church and were privy to my complaints about people and circumstances in the Church. I should have wisely protected them from that.
I often fell short in being a good example to my wife and children through my impatience, anger and sullenness.
There were times I exasperated my children. At times I expected too much from them and moaned too much at them. (Perhaps ambushing my eldest while he was sleeping and setting his duvet alight with fire crackers was not the smartest thing to do!)
When it comes to my Ephesians 5 calling to love my wife, I try to spend lots of time with her, just chatting and connecting. This takes time. I try to protect her from unnecessary stresses and from any church attacks or unfair criticism. We go out to breakfast once a week. We eat suppers together. But most important, I have given her space to be her own person.
This is where I have got it right.
But I have also got it wrong.
My major shortcoming in loving my wife is not telling her I love her enough. I have also not always been wise in what I have what unloaded on her, when I have unloaded and how I have unloaded. Sometimes it has been too much.
I have not always given enough care to her spiritual growth. I should be reading with my wife and not just with the Eldership team. This is how I can build her up and encourage her.
We don’t agree on everything, but one strength of our marriage is unity of conviction on the big things: money, lifestyle, philosophy of raising children and philosophy of ministry. We don’t argue about these things. These are things that can and probably need to be discovered, to some extent, before marriage.
#3 Become self-aware:
It took me while to get to know myself (too long); to realise my strengths and weaknesses and to realise that I was not your typical pastor. (Is there a typical pastor?) I think churches probably have an idea of what a typical pastor is. I have discovered that it is OK if you don’t conform to the typical Church Planter/Pastor identikit.
But for many years I secretly struggled with my own temperament/personality and how God could use me effectively in pastoral ministry.
I am not a people person. I enjoy people; spending time chatting, listening, swopping stories, sharing big ideas and sometimes just talking junk. But sometimes I really struggle with people. I often need my space and time away from people to work through stuff in peace and quiet. This can be hard in full time pastoral ministry. I really don’t like small talk, and in pastoral ministry there is no way to avoid it. An awareness of my need to be away from people and that I can become irritated by people has helped me to navigate ministering to people. I can still be a shepherd and pastor them.
Recognising your weaknesses doesn’t make you a bad pastor. It makes you a
real pastor who realises his dependence on the help of the Holy Spirit.
I am not a consistent worker. (That sounds worse than it actually is).
The rhythm and the intensity of my work is not consistent from Monday to Sunday. It is not consistent from the early morning to the afternoon. I tend to work in fits and starts. I tend to work with great energy, almost manic, but I don’t work like that all week. And if I don’t start well, then I’m in trouble. So I work consistently in fits and starts. That is OK; there are others on the planet just like me.
I know my personal rhythms. I work best in the early morning when I am the sharpest and at my most creative, or after exercise when the endorphins have kicked in. It therefore makes most sense for me to work on my sermon prep and writing in the mornings.
I have to guard that time. I cannot simply push that sort of work to early afternoon. Late in the afternoon I have a window where my creative juices come out of hibernation, but I have never been able to do sermon prep after 19h00. It doesn’t work for me, but it may work well for you. Recognising your personal rhythms helps you to be wise with your schedule and commitments.
Self-awareness is a vital and helpful aspect to being productive in ministry.
#4 Be aware of a Church’s rhythms:
Weekly rhythms: Most of us have to produce one (or two) sermons a week.
No matter how missional we are – Sunday is D-day, every week.
That requires work – reading, praying, preparing and researching – careful, prayerful slog, week after week.
There are no shortcuts for a faithful preacher wanting to correctly handle the Word of Truth in an expository manner. For me, Thursday is ‘make or break.’
My sermon does not need to be complete by then, but it must have come together and have a framework of my main points and application. If not, I am in trouble. So Thursdays are tough days for me.
My family know that I am a different animal on Thursdays. (Probably best if I don’t take many phone calls on a Thursday). I am distant, preoccupied and a bit tense. My wife graciously makes allowances.
It is very helpful to know these weekly rhythms and anticipate them. Of course there might also be Bible study prep, visitation and other weekly church activities that require your attention.
Seasonal rhythms: Gospel ministry has very definite seasonal rhythms.
There are holiday seasons that might involve a holiday club. There might be a yearly camps or retreats. There are quarterly meetings or events. These seasonal events require unique planning, organisation and delegation. (I am a poor planner - others help me).
The beginning of the year is strategic. People are well rested from holidays and full of New Year’s resolutions and the church can tap into those good intentions to set a course or vision. It is a critical time and you may well be feeling like the hamster on the wheel. You do not need to be discouraged, you just need to realise the rhythms of ministry and life.
A personal illustration: I find ministry during national holiday times (mid- December to mid-January) horrible and very tough. If you are not on leave, there is very little as far as the weekly rhythms going on. No midweek stuff, no small groups, no youth activities and people only want to see you in an emergency. So you are in limbo and on call. You are on duty, but there is not much to do. This can be frustrating and so it helps to understand that, anticipate that and make adjustments. It can be a real struggle. It is not you, or the church or Satan – it is just an inevitable rhythm of ministry. Use these times for ministry opportunities that you don’t normally have time for. (You could always alphabetise and organise your ever expanding book shelves and personal library).
#5 Be open to long-term change:
It is our preaching mantra – the Gospel means change and transformation.
But that generally happens slowly.
'And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.' [Philippians 1:6]
Firstly we need to apply that to ourselves. I am not the man I was when I started out in full-time ministry 28 years ago. God has used different ministry situations to stretch, rattle and challenge me. God has grown me. I am grateful for that.
Along the way, God tweaks us; slowly.
I am in the process of being reinvented, by God’s sanctifying hand, in small degrees. God is patient with me.
Many of my initial ministry expectations and goals were ill-informed and immature.
My core theological commitments remain the same, but in terms of balance, emphasis and methods, there have been some substantial changes. Some of these might still evolve.
Secondly, we need to apply that to our congregation; the flock we are called to shepherd. Just as God is slowly and gently tweaking and sanctifying us, the same is true of those in our pews. Spiritual growth and knowledge cannot be microwaved. We need to patiently come alongside them, know them, love them feed them, guide them, care for them, nurture them, pray for them and equip them for works of service for the building up of one another.
As a Pastor or Church Planter, that is our high ministry calling. That is what we are to be faithful in.
We can never be too busy for that. Too much is at stake.
‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.’ [1 Corinthians 3:6-7]
May our great confidence be in the true and living God and in His unbreakable, tenacious, never-ending and never changing love and favour to us.
‘Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!’ [Psalm 115:1]
John is married to Moekie and they have 2 sons; Nick is married to Sarah and he is involved in full-time Student ministry with REACH and Michael, who is studying Physics at UCT.
John was converted to Jesus Christ in 1984 while in the army. He then went on to study at the Bible Institute in Cape Town. He currently pastors Grace Bible Church (an Acts 29 Church) in East London.
Moekie is a Dentist and has always seen her vocation as an opportunity to glorify God.
She is John’s greatest supporter in full time ministry and together they love being involved with God’s people and serving them.
(This photo offers a rare opportunity to see John dressed in a suit. Even an atypical pastor knows when to conform).